South China Sea; China establishes new city; report says conflict is "moving in wrong direction"

Updated On: Jul 25, 2012

The dispute in the South China Sea between China and its South East Asian neighbours -Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - has escalated almost to the ‘point of no return’, claims an international think tank.

The conflict is “moving in the wrong direction” and tensions in the region could easily be driven to “irreversible levels”, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in their report titled “Stirring Up the South China Sea: Regional Responses”, published yesterday.

China establishes new city in bid to strengthen its claim over region

The authoritative report comes as China established its newest city, Sansha, on tiny Yongxing island, part of the highly contested Paracel Islands, yesterday. Beijing has created the city to not only oversee the outpost but also monitor the large expanse of its claimed waters containing disputed - and potentially oil-rich - islands. Speaking at the formal establishment ceremony where the Chinese flag was raised on the island, Mayor Xiao Jie emphasised Sansha’s important role in protecting China’s sovereignty. He said that the creation of the city was “a wise decision made by the party and the government of China to protect the sovereign rights of China, and to strengthen the protection and the development of natural resources.”

However, Vietnam, which also claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands, has called on China to “immediately stop and cancel its wrongful activities.” The Philippines also joined Vietnam in condemning China’s establishment of Sansha, arguing that the move violates international law.  In a speech yesterday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino adopted an aggressive stance on the issue saying “If someone enters your yard and told you he owns it, will you allow that? It’s not right to give away what is rightfully ours.”

Worrying trends in conflict

The events of the last few days have served only to further heighten the already tense and  confrontational relationships China has with its neighbours. China lays claim to everything within the ‘nine-dashed line’, a U-shaped line encompassing the majority of the South China Sea. However, this area overlaps with the territorial claims of other regional countries. Given the disputed region’s potential hydrocarbon reserves, declining fish stocks, and growing domestic nationalism in South East Asian countries, the stakes of the conflict have risen. 

Vietnam and the Philippines in particular are expanding their military and law enforcement capabilities in the South China Sea. On Monday, Philippine President Aquino announced plans to 
buy aircraft, including attack helicopters, that could possibly be used to in ‘solving’ territorial disputes.

These trends are worrying, especially given claimants’ inability to produce a multilateral resolution mechanism at last week’s ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia. Beijing insists on using bilateral talks to resolve disputes whereas Vietnam and the Philippines want to actively engage ASEAN and the U.S.. The ICG report suggests that in order to “counter diminishing prospects” of resolving the conflicts, countries should “strengthen efforts to promote joint development of hydrocarbon and fish resources and adopt a binding code of conduct for all parties to the dispute.”

As the think tank’s Program Director for Asia, Paul Quinn-Judge, put it, “Without a consensus on a resolution mechanism, tensions in the South China Sea can easily spill over into armed conflict.”

Report: China creates city on disputed island, angering neighbors (LA Times, 24 July, 2012)

Report: Nations at Impasse Over South China Sea, Group Warns (NY Times, 24 July, 2012)

Report: China's newest city is on tiny island, has big aim (US News, 24 July, 2012)

Report: China dubs tiny island new city in sea claim bid (Straits Times, 25 July, 2012)


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